Christ the King Sunday
25 November 2012
First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas
I’m going to tell you something about myself that I’m not too proud of. I really like to get the last word in. Really like to get the last word in. In my family “Yeah But” is a common chorus heard as arguments, conversations, debates stretch on. The cacophony that builds as each of us clamors to get the last word in. I’m willing to see the other person’s perspective, but lest they think they’ve won, I retort with a “yeah but!” to re-emphasize and re-articulate my own thoughts, feelings, perspectives, justifying myself once again. Just so we’re clear, I’m still right. I really like to get the last word in.
Today’s scripture passages are full of last words. Much like the long-winded speech from Samuel we read a few weeks ago, in 2 Samuel, we hear the last words of David to the gathered people of Israel. David, too, reminds the people of their own identity as called children of God, and reminds them of God’s own faithfulness to them. Though Israel is now an established monarchy, he reminds them of their utmost loyalty and obedience to God and God’s kingdom: a Kingdom marked by justice and mercy.
These words from David, set us up for some other last words. Today, according to the church calendar, is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the church year. Though, it often gets a bit lost in the hustle of Thanksgiving, Stewardship conversations and Advent Preparations. This year, by luck of the Gregorian Calendar, we (thankfully) have an extra Sunday between Thanksgiving and Advent, so today we recognize Christ the King Sunday. We hear the last words of the liturgical year. Next week we start all over again with Advent – with hope, anticipation and held breath.
The 2 Samuel passage is significant in many ways for this Sunday, perhaps most notably because it prepares us for another kind of king, from David’s own lineage. In the Gospels we remember that Jesus’ own genealogy was traced through royal roots – from the house of David a king will rise up. Jesus is a King first because it is in his blood.
And yet, as we will remember in the coming weeks, Jesus’ royal identity is unexpected, humble and meek. From his very birth, through his life and death, he is a king unrecognizable by any worldly standards or markers.
It is customary, on Christ the King Sunday, to sing triumphant, victorious, coronation style songs about Jesus being King. Today we sang “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Others of us are familiar with hymns like, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “O Worship the King,” and “Lead On O King Eternal.” See, the thing is, Jesus wasn’t exactly a King like most of the lyrics might suggest.
We hear him called King; he told us of God’s Kingdom, but we know that he never wore jewels or a fur-lined robe. He certainly didn’t have a mansion, a castle, or even a home to call his own. He didn’t keep servants or concubines or chefs. And the only crown he ever wore was a crown of thorns. A crown fashioned to mock any claims to kingship he ever had. A crown that turned a symbol of rule and power into a symbol of humiliation, vulnerability, and contempt.
We hear it said, and we say quite often, that Jesus’ Kingdom, that the Kingdom of God, is countercultural; it is subversive. Christ the King Sunday calls us to reflect on the challenging and yet comforting reality of the weight of these ascriptions. In Jesus’ conversation with Pilate, in some of his last words on earth, we hear the challenging, and even confusing dichotomy between kingdoms of this world, and the Kingdom of Christ:
Pilate, as an arm of Caesar, used his power and authority to manipulate others in order to maintain his position and power. He has little to no care for the community he serves – he distances himself from the people over whom he rules when he says to Jesus: “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over.” (John 18. 35) On the other hand, Jesus’ power is the radical power of love and truth. His power is the power of service and sacrifice, to which he attested when he commands us to lose our lives for the sake of others. His authority is divine. His authority to the Kingdom is in his very commitment and living out of the grace and truth, which characterizes it.
The result of Pilate and Caesar’s rule is a culture of fear and terror. Even in the midst of relative calm, as in the context of the Gospels, the people still operated in a culture of fear and suspicion. On the other hand, Jesus brings peace, even into the real presence of terror. Remember his words: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14.27) This is the culture of Christ’s Kingdom.
We can also look to how their followers acted as a measure of leadership: “Pilate’s followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nationality.” On the other hand, we know how Jesus expects his followers to behave, and how he expects his disciples to treat others. He commanded Peter to put away his sword. He commands us to look out and care for our neighbors. His Kingdom, then, is a Kingdom of hospitality and unity, not of violence and division.
The source of authority for Pilate is human. He derives his power from Caesar. Caesar derives his power from control and self-declaration. Even in a democracy, we understand the imperfection and tenuousness of authority that originates from human will. On the other hand, Jesus’ authority is derived from the will of God and is eternal. His Kingdom is not susceptible to coup or to conquering. Christ’s Kingdom is the Kingdom of eternal light and life, which originates from the will of God.
What has this to do with us?
What does this mean for those of us who profess faith in Christ?
I believe that the true countercultural call of God’s Kingdom, of Christ’s Kingdom is for those of us who call ourselves believers. It is easy to talk about the subversive nature of an eternal kingdom, but what does that mean for us?
When we talk about the Reign of Christ, when we honor and sing about Christ as our King, we are talking and singing about a Kingdom and a Reign already at work in the person of Jesus Christ. In our Incarnational declarations of Easter and Pentecost, we confess that God’s own self in human form dwells among us, cares for us so much that he lives and works among the human community. Jesus, as God’s Incarnation, established a kingdom of reconciliation, right relationship and true humility.
The question we turn to is how are we contributing to the building of this Kingdom?
In Revelation, John identifies the work of Christ as King as threefold: he loves us, he has freed us, and he “made us to be a Kingdom.” (1.6) Not only has the work of Christ begun to bring this Kingdom into being, he is doing so through us, creating us as priests in service to God and God’s Kingdom.
If Christ’s work was to make us into the Kingdom, how are we, together, proclaiming his reign?
Jesus did not and does not do this work alone. Rather, he calls us alongside not only to do the work of his Kingdom, but to become his very kingdom through our commitments and our lives, which are to be a living testimony to the truth, love and grace of God’s kingdom.
Sara Miles, who has quickly become one of my favorite writers, reflects on her own radical conversion, and asks the question – of herself, and of us – what if Jesus actually meant what he said? What if he really meant it when he commanded us to follow him – to forgive, to heal, to cleanse, to raise from the dead? What would it mean if we were to behave as though we were filled with the Spirit of God’s Kingdom? The radically simple thing about Jesus is that “what he said and what he did were the same thing. His human body was God’s language as much as his speech.” And this is how we are to follow: with our bodies as much as our speech. Miles writes that after Jesus was resurrected and he returned to his followers, he appeared and breathed the Holy Spirit into their presence. This act, she writes, effects a new creation. “Jesus is breathing more life into humanity. He is handing over the greatest power of all.” He breathes the very power of God’s kingdom on us. We are to follow – in word and in deed – especially in deed. We are to reveal healing love. We are the strengthen hope. We do these things in our serving and in our living.
We must be part of God’s transformation of the world. John’s Gospel points to one of the most challenging pieces of our becoming and living out God’s Kingdom.
One of the most striking themes of John’s Gospel is truth. Indeed, Jesus is called truth embodied.
- “The word became flesh and walked among us – full of grace and truth.” (John 1.14)
- We are to worship God in “spirit and in truth.” (John 4.24)
- We will know the truth, and it will set us free. Substitute this with Christ – We know Christ and through him we are set free – this is the truth to which John bears witness in the opening verses of Revelation. (John. 8.32)
- The Holy Spirit, which Jesus leaves us, is the spirit of truth. (John. 16.13)
- In the verses from John today, Jesus answers Pilate, saying, “You say that I am king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to God.” (John 18.37)
Jesus’ Kingdom as a kingdom of truth is the very countercultural, subversive message that likely we all need to hear. We fear the truth in so many ways. In so many ways our lives testify against truth. Authenticity itself is rejected all around us. What if we started telling the truth? What if we dared speak the truth about the role of grace and love in our lives? Not the greeting card sentimentality, but radical grace, truth and love that confronts and dismantles the competing realities of fear, deception, mistrust, and despair? It begins by telling the truth about fear, deception, mistrust and despair. Only then can we understand the truth about grace, love, mercy, and hope.
In the ways that Jesus testifies, we hear that truth is something done rather than something believed. Our witness to the truth, the reality of the truth, is wrapped up in faithful living and witness to the subversive Kingdom of God.
The truth of God’s Kingdom is that it does not belong to us, but we belong to it. And like most concepts, this is a kind of belonging that upsets and reverses our notions. We have a lot of belongings, do we not? We believe we possess many things, and those things, in turn, offer us something – self-worth, prestige, comfort, status. We belong to lots of organizations, we offer our dues, and we become members, we choose to belong to different groups, associations, political parties. And just as easily we can choose not to belong to these groups. Dropping out is just as easy as dropping in. This is no different when it comes to the church.
In God’s Kingdom we do not belong because we choose, or because we earn our keep, or because we do anything at all. The further radical message of Christ’s Reign is that we are wrapped up in God’s Kingdom together. It is practically impossible for us to comprehend the communal belonging that is God’s Kingdom. We focus so much of our time and energies on our own individual decision-making, believing that our lives, our well-being, our self-worth, even our salvation is up to us, can be determined by our individual decisions. But the message of God’s Kingdom is this: we belong to God. Through Christ, we belong, then, to one another. This has nothing to do with anything we choose, but is God’s own radical grace and love that wraps us up in God’s own self. Christ unites us and we, therefore, belong together, as his Kingdom.
In fact, when Jesus tells his disciples earlier in the Gospels, “the Kingdom of God is among you;” “the Kingdom of God is within you,” he is not using a singular pronoun. The word “you” here is plural, much like the word “y’all” (perhaps the greatest gift the South has given us, other than fried chicken and Flannery O’Connor). The Kingdom of God is not in “You” as individuals, but the Kingdom of God is in “Y’all” as the community gathered by Christ. The Kingdom of God is Y’all in the very living out and witnessing to the Kingdom work of the Risen Christ.
In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, in his last words, in this, the last liturgical word of our church year, we hear challenging world-ending words.
Jesus is inaugurating the end of the world. This is not the destruction of the world as we know it. (Though we may witness that unfolding as well, at our very hands.) His life, death and resurrection usher in the telos – the end, the goal – of the world; the radical transformation of the world as we know it. We turn now to advent, when we wait, we hope, for the coming of Christ. Sarah Dylan Breuer puts it this way: “Jesus is coming. Each time two or three of us gathers, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim the Good News of the prophets and apostles that the world of empires is passing away, and God’s dream for Creation is breaking through it even now, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim Jesus the Christ and not any worldly power or principality as our Lord, Jesus’ kingdom breaks through that much more. The kingdom of God. The peaceable realm in which all are free from anxiety, as all have what they need – the bread and wine, the water and power, the love and joy. It’s not just the end of the church year, we’re anticipating this Sunday. It’s the end of the world as we know it.” May our lives become agents of the Kingdom, full of grace and truth, belonging fully and only to the Reign of Christ.
 Jaime Clark-Soles, workingpreacher.net
 Sara Miles, Jesus Freak. Jossey-Bass.
 Luke 17.21, NRSV
 Luke 17.21, KJV